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The lousy baseball teams looking to contend in 2015

Seven teams finished under .500 last year, but spent the offseason as if they were planning to win their division in 2015. What did they do, and how do they look?

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is supposed to be for dreaming. The lousy teams who aren't trying to improve for the next season are still squirreling away prospects for future dreams, if they're lucky. The contending teams are all snatching up players who will look good on a parade float, and they're encouraging fans to dream along with them. Oh, it's a wondrous time without those silly games getting in the way.

There are teams in the middle of that Venn diagram, though. Teams that were lousy last season, but acting like contending teams in the offseason. We all get used to them as contenders over the winter months, bit it's not a bad idea to stop, squint, and remember just how lousy they really were. The road for these teams is long and daunting, but there are success stories. Here are the lousy teams from 2013 who were contending into the final month of 2014:

Angels (78-84 in 2013)
Mariners (71-91)
Blue Jays (74-88)
Brewers (74-88)
Giants (76-86)*

*won World Series

Only two of the teams made the playoffs, but all five had at least some hope in September. By my count, there are seven teams this year who were under .500 last year but spent the offseason making several decidedly win-now moves. Teams like the Rangers and Rays, who still have hopes but didn't spend the offseason making short-term moves, don't count. We're talking about the hyperactive teams who dominated the offseason headlines. Here are the seven teams, along with their moves, a reminder of just how much ground they have to make up, and their chances of succeeding.

Boston Red Sox

Record last year
71-91, fifth place

Moves made
Signed Hanley Ramirez to four-year deal
Signed Pablo Sandoval to five-year deal
Traded for Rick Porcello
Signed Justin Masterson to one-year deal
Traded for Wade Miley
Signed Alexi Ogando to one-year deal

Chances of succeeding
Good. They have to find 20 wins or so to contend, but luckily they're not wholly counting on that group to find them. They're counting on young players improving (Xander Bogaerts) and veterans rebounding (Clay Buchholz). They might be considered favorites for the division, but they were last year, too. Still, they're close enough to taste it.


Close enough to taste it, I say.

Chicago White Sox

Record last year
73-89, fourth place

Moves made
Signed Adam LaRoche to three-year deal
Signed David Robertson to four-year deal
Traded for Jeff Samardzija
Signed Melky Cabrera to three-year deal
Traded for Dan Jennings
Signed Emilio Bonifacio
Signed Gordon Beckham

Chances of succeeding
Fair, though it's worth noting that the projection systems are still extremely skeptical. The moves from LaRoche through Cabrera happened in a three-week span, so it was easy to get impressed with the rapid-fire improvements. Once the adrenaline wore off, though, the little holes started looking more ominous. LaRoche is 35 and hitting cleanup, and everyone after him in the lineup is somewhere between sketchy and extremely sketchy. It's been four years since John Danks' last good season and Hector Noesi is still looking for his first.

There's a lot to like about the three hitters at the top of the order, and Chris Sale is still starting 20 percent of the games. As long his extension-cord-being-attacked-by-a-greyhound pitches are working like they're supposed to, the White Sox will be fun to watch at least some of the time. It wouldn't take deus ex machina for them to win the division, just a little good fortune. Unlike the ...

Minnesota Twins

Record last year
70-92, fifth place

Moves made
Signed Torii Hunter to one-year deal
Signed Ervin Santana to four-year deal

Chances of succeeding
Low. They didn't make nearly as many moves as the other teams here, and you can almost write off the Hunter deal as pleasant nostalgia. But I wanted another chance to make fun of the Santana deal before the season started, so they sneak in.

The first rule when thinking about the 2015 Twins is to remember how oddly competent their lineup was last year. With the exception of projected #9 hitter Aaron Hicks, every regular in their lineup had an adjusted OPS above the league average. If this were any other team, I'd be yelling from the rafters about how they're stealthy contenders with an average rotation. Except here are three of the players with that above-average OPS+ last year:

PA OPS+ BB SO BABIP History of success in minors?
Danny Santana 430 130 19 98 .405 Nope
Oswaldo Arcia 410 108 31 127 .292 Yes
Kennys Vargas 234 115 12 63 .340 Not really

It's a mishmash of red flags, with all of them having dodgy K/BB in common. Arcia basically repeated his 2013 season, so maybe he's a known quantity, but the other two would make me nervous as a Twins fan. Add in the light production of Hicks, and that's about half of the lineup with serious concerns. They need great-not-good pitching. Which I guess was the idea behind Santana, but we'll get to that.

The second rule when thinking about the 2015 Twins is they have the best 1-2 prospect duo in the game, with Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Those concerns up there mean a whole lot less if one or the both of them could unexpectedly skip a grade this year. Combined with the solid hitters in the rest of the lineup, they're a team with a timeline written in pencil, not ink. And like the last-place 2012 Red Sox, sometimes it makes sense to stock up on free agents juuuuuust in case a few other things go right.

The money given to Santana, though, when combined with the money thrown down a Ricky Nolasco-shaped hole, should keep the Twins out of the free agent market for a while. It's prudent to build a roster filled with quality players, just in case everything comes together quicker than expected; it's foolish to take your shot a season too early with imperfect players before the prospects are even here. Maybe there's more money under the mattress, in which case the Twins will be just fine for 2016 and 2017. For now, though, it looks like an oddly timed gamble, at best.

Houston Astros

Record last year
70-92, fourth place

Moves made
Traded for Hank Conger
Signed Pat Neshek to two-year deal
Signed Luke Gregerson to three-year deal
Signed Jed Lowrie to three-year deal
Traded for Evan Gattis
Traded for Luis Valbuena
Traded for Dan Straily
Signed Colby Rasmus to a one-year deal

Chances of succeeding
Low, but this is a much more comfortable way to build a roster of capable players just in case there are some surprises around them. The odds aren't great -- or good, really -- that the Astros can compete with the Angels, A's, Mariners, or even Rangers this season, but there are seven or eight names up there that belong on a major league roster. Or, about seven more than the Astros had on the team two years ago. If it's another season of crashing and/or burning, they'll have assets to deal at the deadline. If they contend ahead of schedule, they'll have a couple holes to fill instead of a half-dozen.

Go back and revisit the Astros lineup on September 22, 2013. It's fun! And it makes you appreciate just how far they've come to put together a team that can get to .500 in such a short time.

Miami Marlins

Record last year
77-85, fourth place

Moves made
Traded for Aaron Crow
Traded for Dan Haren
Traded for Dee Gordon
Traded for Mat Latos
Traded for Martin Prado
Signed Michael Morse to two-year deal
Signed Ichiro Suzuki to one-year deal

Chances of succeeding
Fair, but only because they're taking their chances the year that every non-Nationals team in the division gave up or stopped trying. If the Nationals fall into the same electric bathtub that the Rangers fell into last year, the Marlins are the best positioned out of the remaining teams to take advantage. But, golly, do I dislike their individual offseason moves.

Haren might not show up. Latos had a troubling decline in velocity last year. As soon as Morse crosses the foul line, he gives back almost every positive contribution he's made. Gordon isn't likely to hit as well as he did last year. Prado might still have some life left, but they traded one of their more promising pitchers to get him. It's far too easy to nitpick each individual move, which means it's even easier to dismiss the entire offseason as wild, optimistic alchemy.

It's not a bad roster, though. Not at all. It's the Marlins Paradox. Once they get Jose Fernandez back, they might have enough pitching to surprise. I don't mind the timing of their moves, just the actual moves.

Chicago Cubs

Record last year
73-89, fifth place

Moves made
Signed Tsuyoshi Wada to one-year deal
Signed Jason Hammel to two-year deal
Signed Jason Motte to one-year deal

Traded for Tommy La Stella

Traded for Miguel Montero
Signed Jon Lester to six-year deal
Signed David Ross to two-year deal
Signed Chris Denorfia to one-year deal
Traded for Dexter Fowler

Chances of succeeding
Fair. The Cardinals and Pirates are tough, and the Brewers and Reds aren't filled with minor league free agents, especially in the rotation. Like the Twins, the Cubs will likely have some incendiary homegrown hitters, and that cavalry is more likely to arrive in 2016. But what if they show up this year? That's where Montero, Denorfia, and Fowler come in. If the timetable is more traditional for the high-risk, high-reward youngsters like Javier Baez, they made sure to sign one of the pitchers who is likely to help just as much next season.

The rotations in the NL Central are almost interchangeable, so anything good that happens to the Cubs will likely come from players like Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant, with players like Hammel and Jason Motte around just in case. That's the secret theme of most of these teams: They had just-in-case offseasons. (They all could have signed two of these guys and saved a lot of money, IMO.)

San Diego Padres

Record last year
77-85, third place

Moves made
Signed Clint Barmes to one-year deal
Traded for Matt Kemp
Signed Brandon Morrow to one-year deal
Traded for Wil Myers
Traded for Derek Norris
Traded for Justin Upton
Traded for Will Middlebrooks
Traded for Brandon Maurer
Traded for Shawn Kelley
Signed James Shields to four-year deal

Chances of succeeding
Good. And it all started with Clint Barmes.

What does an active offseason like this mean? To 34 players, it means that the Padres are the reason they're looking for apartments, adjusting to a new home, relocating their families. To transaction junkies like us, it means we get to clap our hands and wonder just how this will all work.

There are questions, of course. Matt Kemp was one of the worst defenders in baseball last year, if not baseball history, and the pre-trade physical revealed arthritic hips in addition to knee issues. Myers has a lot of swing-and-miss in his bat, and he's coming off an extremely disappointing season. There are question marks, if not interrobangs, on the left side of the infield, and it's not the strongest defensive team.

It's a deep team, though, especially in the rotation. And they'll have options at the deadline if they want to pass on Cole Hamels. There is a certain kind of romance that comes with a team calmly rebuilding with prospects over an extended period of time. There's a kind of delightful Hollywood violence that comes with a team realizing they have $40 million to spend and enough prospects to tempt other teams into deals. The Padres, who need about 12 or 13 more wins to contend seriously for at least a wild card, were the darlings of the offseason.

All that needs to happen now is for the offseason plaudits to turn into in-season wins. At least one or two of the above teams will find a way to contend after sub-par 2014 seasons. No one can fault the other teams for lack of effort.